On Saturday, March 29, some 900 men from our diocese attended the sixth annual IGNITE Conference at the SRC Arena and Events Center. It was a fine day that nourished the hearts and minds of the dedicated, faith-filled men who participated. The homily I preached on that occasion is printed below.
Let me begin by telling you how pleased I am to be with you for the sixth annual IGNITE Conference. How gratifying and encouraging it is for me to experience a gathering that calls together so many men, committed to their Catholic faith, who have set aside a day to be nourished by the celebration of God’s Word and sacrament in the Eucharist, the reception of the Sacrament of Penance and the presentations from our fine speakers.
The very name of your conference touches on aspects of Pope Francis’ message in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. Ignite means “to catch fire” and “to go out”; “to stir up” and “to awaken.” Francis invites all of us to a renewed encounter with Christ or at least to an openness to letting Him encounter us. “The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step toward Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms” (The Joy of the Gospel, 2).
With hearts awakened, enkindled and moved by your encounter with Christ, you are called to go forth to share the Gospel, to share Christ with others. “Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel” (The Joy of the Gospel, 20).
Three words came to mind as I reflected on the readings for today: conversion, mercy and humility.
Conversion: You have chosen your theme for the conference from the opening verse of the first reading from Hosea: Return to the Lord. We are at Lent’s halfway point and Hosea invites us to “Come, let us return to the Lord” (Hos 6:1). Lent is about conversion. All of us stray from the Lord from time to time. Rather than walking at His side we may lag a bit here and there and the distance between the Lord and us widens.
Hosea offers a good description for our lackadaisical efforts to live as disciples. “Your piety is like a morning cloud, like the dew that early passes away” (Hos 6:4). Conversion is important. We need to turn away from what distracts us and takes us away from the Lord. We need to refresh our spirit, to rekindle our desire to be a faithful disciple. But there is more. This turning away, this rekindling of desire must be followed with actions which demonstrate that we have had a change of mind and heart. When we are truly Christ-centered and Christ-focused we live differently.
Mercy: One of my favorite Gospel parables is the Prodigal Son. Both sons and the father have something to teach us. But let’s think about the father for a moment. Picture him every day looking down the road hoping to see the wayward son and eager to welcome him home. This is what God does for us. He waits for us to return to the warm embrace of His love. He waits to give us His pardon and the peace that flows from it. When we return to the Lord, Hosea tells us, “He will bind our wounds…. He will receive us to live in his presence” (Hos 6:1-2).
“God’s mercy can make even the driest land become a garden, can restore life to dry bones (Cf. Ez 37:1-14)…. Let us be renewed by God’s mercy, let us be loved by Jesus, let us enable the power of his love to transform our lives too; and let us become agents of this mercy, channels through which God can water the earth, protect all creation and make justice and peace flourish” (Pope Francis, Urbi et Orbi Message, March 31, 2013). God never tires of waiting for us to return to Him.
Humility: I chose this word because I think it fits the Gospel reading. Humility has a lot to do with truth, with knowing ourselves as we are: creatures made in God’s image and likeness but weakened by original sin and our personal sins. A humble man knows that he is in need of redemption. He knows he stands in need of God’s grace.
Today’s Gospel tells us about two men. One is so confident of his goodness that he is described as “self-righteous.” In other words, he saves himself exclusively by his good deeds. He prays and fasts, is not greedy, adulterous or dishonest. We can almost hear him say, “What a good man I am.”
The other man, a tax collector no less, lingers at a distance from the temple and recognizes the truth of who he is. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Lk 18:13). Following this admission the Gospel says, “He who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 18:14). Understanding who we truly are within ourselves and before God is an essential element of the life of faith. “Our deepest identity is rooted where we are like other people — weak, broken, sinful, but sons and daughters of God” (Henri Nouwen, Jesus: A Gospel).
In your efforts to return to the Lord it is important to accept the truth of who you are and this includes your need always for God’s grace. It is He who will stir your heart to return to Him, to reach out for and accept His mercy.
Your presence here today is a sign of your desire to return to the Lord through the conversion of your mind and heart; your recognition of your need for mercy and your willingness to show it to others and your humility which keeps you in a right relationship with God. It tells us, too, of your desire not only to be disciples of the Lord, but to be missionaries who go forth proclaiming the joy of the Gospel and witnessing to it in your everyday lives.
Remember, “Today’s world stands in great need of witnesses, not so much of teachers, but rather witnesses. It is not so much about speaking, but rather speaking with our whole lives” (Pope Francis, Address from St. Peter’s Square, May 18, 2013). Ignited by the fire of God’s love, let us all go forth to proclaim the beauty, truth and joy of the Gospel.
If you have a prayer intention you would like me to consider during the weeks ahead, please mail it to my attention at 240 E. Onondaga St., Syracuse, N.Y. 13202.